The Marathon: A Brief History

The marathon has been transformed into a talismanic calling for runners all over the world. The question is: why?

Posted: 23 March 2011
by Warren Pole

Role models

A good example of this theory in action is Roger Bannister running the first sub-four-minute mile. For nine years, the record  had stood at 4:01.3, but after Bannister dipped below the mythical barrier, running 3:59.4 in 1954, some 200 other athletes followed suit within a year.

For Bart Bailey, 36, now a seven-time London Marathon finisher and in training for number eight, Bandura's theory was the catalyst to his marathon running.

"I grew up in the 1980s, when we had some amazing British marathon runners, including Steve Jones who won New York, and Hugh Jones and Charlie Spedding  who won London. They inspired me to want to run a marathon too, but I thought it would be impossible. Then, in my late 20s, I started to meet people who'd managed it. Suddenly, something that had seemed so far beyond my capabilities felt within my reach."

Hard...but not too hard

More people running marathons means...well, even more people running marathons. But they aren't running them because they're easy; quite the opposite. The key here lies in the balance between 'hard' and 'too hard', because it seems the marathon occupies exactly the right spot on this scale.

Sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson believes the marathon is "a significant enough challenge that you have to train seriously, but it's still doable by us mere mortals with the right amount of commitment over a long enough period".

The key factor in the marathon's length is that it's far enough to push the average body to its first major biological breakdown, yet not so far that finishing becomes an impossibility.

Hitting 'the wall'

Because the average body can only store enough fuel for 18-20 miles of running, there comes a very obvious point in a marathon where almost everyone wants to give up as they run out of gas and 'hit the wall'.

Gareth Evans, sports scientist and strength and conditioning coach at the Porsche Human Performance Centre in Silverstone, explains what's happening at this point: "It's a combination of things, but 'hitting the wall' is primarily about running out of glycogen, the major fuel for exercise. Elite athletes train to avoid this by teaching their bodies to take energy from fat stores, but for most people this doesn't happen fast enough, no matter how much fat they have to burn.

As well as running on empty at this point, runners will also have raised core temperatures and fatigue to their central and peripheral nervous systems, as well as sore and swollen muscles to contend with. So from every angle, the body is yelling at them to stop."

Digging deep

Energy gels, drinks and bars all help with this. But even so, the misery of hitting the wall on top of muscle pain, cramps, and blisters makes this section of the marathon a killer hurdle. If there were another 20 miles to the finish, it would be too much for most people; but with just six or so to go, the incentive to push on is often strong enough to win the battle.

The event is basically everything your body can possibly manage, then a little bit more. For those who do make that finish, this only adds to the enormous satisfaction of marathon running, and it's yet another reason we're so obsessed with this event.

Setting goals

Running a marathon lets us take control of our lives. As Firth-Clark says, "We all like to set goals and achieve them, but life doesn't always let us do that. But with a marathon, runners can take full control of their own destiny, set a high goal, then see it through to the end. This makes marathon running hugely satisfying, both mentally and physically."

Then there's the popular perception of the marathon as being incredibly tough, and this helps it occupy the fabled place it does for so many runners. It's a perception that has been honed over the years and has brought the event into popular consciousness.

Mass Participation

Pheidippides' untimely death might have been the legend that kicked it all off, but by the late 1970s, mass participation marathons like New York were initiating a change in marathon running, proving this wasn't an event confined to elites only. With TV sports coverage growing at the same time, these city marathons made a natural spectacle. This coverage spread the marathon fever once again.

Now with four marathons under his belt, 36-year-old David Hunstone was one of thousands who caught the bug after seeing the marathon on TV. "I must have been 10 years old, and I remember it vividly," he says. "I didn't know much about what I was seeing but I knew it was a marathon and it looked amazing. I was fascinated by it and knew I wanted to run one when I was older."

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Discuss this article

Obviously there are some variations but how was the 26.2 miles chosen - is it meant to be the same as the distance from Marathon to Athens?

Posted: 24/03/2011 at 20:22

Celebrities are *not* my inspiration; my colleagues are. Not many of my colleagues have run a marathon but their tireless efforts to be the very best in their chosen sports and at work just spur me on, no end. I love 'em.

 Ruddy celebrities... they're just people we don't know... what's the big deal.

 (Unless of course they are famous for having achieved something e.g. Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Paula Radcliffe)

Posted: 24/03/2011 at 20:43

not sure why 26.2

wish I could run as fast as Paula Radcliffe she is amazing
Posted: 26/03/2011 at 22:23

Everything you need to know...
Posted: 27/03/2011 at 02:05

Strange to think that if the marathon pioneers had taken a different view of history, the marathon distance might have been set at 22 miles!
Posted: 27/03/2011 at 13:30

Wish it bloody had...
Posted: 27/03/2011 at 13:45

The exact distance was moved to tie in with the grandstand at the London Olympics I believe!  Before that they just ran about 26 miles...
Posted: 27/03/2011 at 14:48

Anyhow, everybody has done a marathon these days. 

The Ultramarathon is the new marathon.

Posted: 28/03/2011 at 12:50

Does anyone know any stats regarding time. Having watched and worked at London for many years it seems that whilst the elite are getting quicker and there are more runners. The average time is getting significantly slower. When i went as a teenager around 1990 it seemed the average was around 3:30, but now it feels like 4:30-5 is the busiest period.

This is only my observation, but I'd quite like to know if this is correct and whether it is the same nationwide and worldwide.

Posted: 30/03/2011 at 09:15

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